Kariba dam half empty – energy crisis in Southern Africa gets deeper

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Lack of rains this year has led fall of water levels of the Kariba dam reservoir on the Zambia-Zimbabwe border, and subsequently diminished power generation. The water level of the reservoir is now only 40% of its full capacityZambia generates almost all of its electricity by hydropower plants (over 99%), with Kariba Dam being the main source. Copper mining in northern parts of the country is vital for Zambian economy, but power crisis have now forced mining companies to cut back on production. These companies already suffer from low copper prices and now power shortage means significantly increased costs. Should the situation be prolonged, mines may be forced to be closed, and thousands of workers will be sent home. The power shortage is also hurting other industries and affects the daily life of Zambians.

The construction of Kariba Dam commenced in 1955 and the facility was opened four years later. It forms the world’s largest reservoir. Thousands of people whose homes fell under the reservoir had to be resettled, but they were never properly compensated. The condition of the ageing dam is now getting worse, and a collapse of the dam would have disastrous effects. A taste of this was felt in Zimbabwe last year when a smaller dam, Tokwe-Mukorsi, collapsed. While the condition of Kariba Dam is acknowledged, its repairs have been delayed due to funding issues and unnecessary political bureaucracy, not made easier that the dam is shared by two countries.

Kariba Dam viewed from the Zimbabwe side. Photo source: Wikipedia
Kariba Dam viewed from the Zimbabwe side. Photo source: Wikipedia

Even without the recent problems at Kariba Dam, insufficient power generation has been a major problem in the entire Southen African region. South Africa, despite being the leading economy in the area, suffers from blackouts that are nowadays much a commonplace. With existing power stations frequently down on maintenance, the public energy company ESKOM is considered as a national shame by many South Africans.

There is an urgent need to build new power plants in the region. Renewable energy certainly has much potential future in Africa, especially now that cost of these technologies is coming down. Large-scale solar and wind farms are already being built around the continent. On smaller scale, Solar energy, for instance, suits well to replace costly diesel generators used especially in off-grid areas.

The increasing demand for electricity cannot be realistically met by renewable power sources alone. Taking environmental considerations, coal is far from a preferred energy source. But it is cheap and there are significant coal resources in Southern Africa. Therefore coal will inevitably have increasing importance in the region. Natural gas power plants also use fossil fuels. It is not much used in Africa relative to other continents, but new plant are being built for example in Mozambique.

Hydropower is a major source of electricity in many African countries, and there are still more plants being planned or under construction. Hydropower plants create clean electricity, but dams create landscape destruction and affects hydrology, and thus is not environmentally desired energy source.

Nuclear power is also considered controversial, but it can generate huge capacity of relatively cheap energy. The Koeberg nuclear power plant in South Africa is the only one in the entire continent. There are plans to build new reactors, but if ever built, it would take ages to be operational.

Geothermal power is used in the East African region, mainly in Kenya which is now the main power source in the country. Geothermal energy is suitable only in few locations. Other potential energy sources include biomass and wave energy, but these will most likely have only minor importance. 

In conclusion, the Southern African region already suffers from major power shortages. In countries like Zambia, where power generation largely depends one big plant, any disruptions there will badly affect local economy. New power plants are needed to deal with the power shortage, but while new plants are being built, they cannot meet the ever increasing demand by growing and burgeoning population. Unreliable power supply also keeps potential investors away.

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